Optimist, Cynic or Realist – These 4 Questions Can Help Determine What’s What

America officially went bonkers last week as we said goodbye to pre-season football and started playing games that count!

As a Dallas Cowboy fan, that game against the New York Giants was craaaa-zy! I found myself, quite cynical believing in Romo’s ability to lead the team to victory in the final seconds…but WOW, I was pleasantly surprised by the results! While Romo’s stats are great, I’ve also witnessed many clutch plays where he misses the mark.

Child holding an umbrella standing in front of a chalk drawing oIt got me thinking about being cynical when it comes to our expectations of how people will perform. Could it be a self-fulfilling prophecy? OR is it a matter of being realistic in terms of what someone can accomplish?

My cynicism is a result of the history I’ve had with a person or situation. If someone has repeatedly missed deadlines or not met performance expectations, I tend to doubt their ability to do so now or in the future. Key word – repeatedly. As the saying goes, “the best indicator of future performance is past behavior.”

However, I also tend to expect the best of people and will give them chances to make changes and develop so that they can improve their performance and opportunities to grow in their career.

So how does a leader balance the optimistic outlook of an employee’s development potential and being realistic about their performance history and releasing them to give someone else the opportunity?

When is it time to fish or cut bait?

I can appreciate leaders who want to give their people time to develop and improve, however, many times they can be too forgiving and keep them around for too long. The results of this often lead to others on the team becoming discouraged by the leader’s inability to take action and get the right person in the job.

If this sounds familiar, here are some questions you can consider that might help you determine what next steps are needed:

  • Have I clearly established expectations? Clear expectations are set by being explicit in communicating that answers the Who, What, When, Where and Why of the expectation. Additionally, do a gut check on: Is what I’m asking realistic? fair? Does this person have the capability to do it? If the answer is YES, then set up a time with the person to have a focused discussion about the expectations.
  • Did I gain their commitment to meet the expectations? After communicating what is expected, look for the non-verbal ques that suggest they are on board and committed (e.g., taking notes, making eye contact, leaning in, nodding their head). If you see signals that the person is NOT on board (e.g., heavy sighing, slumping in chair, rolling their eyes/not making eye contact), acknowledge it and ask them a question to understand what they are thinking: What do you think? Do you have any concerns or issues? Does that seem fair? Can you do this?
  • Did I provide the needed resources and follow-up? It’s important to stay connected to the work to uncover any situations where you need to remove obstacles, offer suggestions and/or resources and coach along the way if the work is getting off track. Remember to set up check-in meetings so that when the due date arrives, you won’t be surprised by the results.
  • Am I able to observe any improvement in performance and key behaviors? If you see positive changes, be sure to communicate what you’ve observed and encourage the continued good work. If you are NOT seeing the positive changes, provide that feedback to let the person know what is still not working well and engage them in a discussion to get their ideas about what they will do to meet the expectations.

If you are able to respond to these questions positively, then you’ve done your part. If the performance is still not meeting expectations, then it’s time to make some personnel changes.

You do no one any favors by letting someone struggle and not experience success. The team, the business and the individual all suffer.

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at mduesterhoft@people-results.com.